Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

_____________

**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Questioning Critique

  1. Dario, as someone who is a career workshopper, I take your many excellent points. In fact, there were several years when I dropped out of my regular workshop for all of your well-stated reasons. But I came back because I worried that while I was pretty good at what I was good at, I was still trying things that I had never tried before. Plus, when one gets to the point I am in my career, it never hurts to have pushback, even if it is wrongheaded — assuming that is, that you have the emotional and artistic wherewithal to resist persuasive critique. Meanwhile, I am sending this link to my workshop, so thanks!

    • Jim, thanks so much for commenting here! Career workshopper? LOL! But, yeah, I get that, I’m sort of one, too. It does do wonders for one’s own writing, as I’ve discovered editing other people’s work does. But I’ve always been wary of dogma, and in the last year or so the old adage about knowing the rules before you break them comes increasingly to mind. Again, a duality: I’ve become more confident in my own work, yes–but as you say, the need for pushback is still, will always still, be there, and perhaps more necessary than ever. I’ve just grown very selective about where I prefer that pushback to come from. Interesting stuff 🙂

      Thank YOU, Jim!

    • jaspkelly said: “while I was pretty good at what I was good at, I was still trying things that I had never tried before”.
      Great point. IOW, when trying a crazy stunt in midair for the first time, a safety net is a really good idea, and supports pushing the envelope. That trusted group of readers who know you and get what you’re trying to do will let you know if it’s working, and be there to save you from an ugly fall if it’s not.

  2. Wrote a pretty detailed essay on this topic on Medium. Paralleled a lot of what you outline above. https://medium.com/@jakedfw/finding-critique-partners-1842cb454adf

  3. Great post. There is a tipping point at which an author must decide for themselves when not every critique is worthy of pursuing a revision over. What’s disturbing is the trend of each person’s opinion of any particular work being considered an “absolute” and to spurn it is to run the risk of failure. It’s simply not so.

    • Martin, thanks for commenting. Yes, and this judgment call can be especially hard for newer writers. That said, I think with newer writers, the benefits of a (good) formal and regular critique group make it necessary and worthwhile, because there is usually a lot of stuff that really does need flagging 🙂 It’s a tricky line.

  4. “The Mature Writer’s ability to say no” hits the nail on the head. Learning whose advice to take has a lot to do with how we perceive the strengths of the other writers reviewing our work. Most critique, especially the prescriptive versions, boils down to “this is what you need to do in order to write like me,” which has nothing to do with author intent. It takes a good deal of self-awareness to recognize where one’s own voice gets muddied by the process, and perhaps, self-awareness can only come from checking one’s ego at the door.

    • Setsu, thanks for that. An emphatic YES! As newer writers, we make an awful lot of bona fide goofs, and there’s plenty that needs fixing. But when, usually after many years, a writer has acquired a certain level of craft and is sure of who they are, the feedback they need is from writers who totally *get* who they are, and what they’re aiming at, and consequently give feedback which aims to strengthen that (at the same time as dealing with actual deficiencies). Again, this is a hard point to make because it’s subtle one, but you summed it up perfectly in, ““this is what you need to do in order to write like me,” which has nothing to do with author intent”.

  5. I have been in critique groups that did not critique enough and in groups that are so picky that the critique became more of a burden than being of good use. I’d rather have a writer or editor I trust read over the book and get feedback from a couple of other people who can give an intelligent critique. My wife, though she’s not a professional writer, is an excellent reader since she is good at finding logical flaws in the plot and in finding the little grammatical and spelling errors that always creep into a work. Once I get those issues corrected, I send it out to others.

    • Michael, good to hear your thoughts. You’ve experienced the gamut, then! 🙂 I think for many of us (and Stephen King says this in “On Writing”), our spouse is, as he puts it, our “Ideal Reader”. If they are a habitual reader, they’re probably in our audience, a reader to the core, and yet won’t BS us or focus on things that other writers or book industry professionals, *but not readers*, would concern themselves with. Nor will a spouse who’s a good Ideal Reader go easy on us. I remember when my wife read an early draft of my first book, “Aegean Dream”, she struck out a whole, long paragraph with a bold diagonal line and (in case I missed the point) wrote, “Yuck!” in the margin! LOL.

      She was right. I took out the paragraph.

  6. sfmurphy1971

    My Creative Writing teacher at the community college I teach at had a fairly effective critique system. It went as follows:

    1. Memorable: The reader had to ID one memorable item from the piece.
    2. Strengths: The reader had to ID one or more strengths in the piece.
    3. Weaknesses: One and only one weakness.
    4. Suggestions for revision: At least one of these.

    With diligent students in a class of thirty it was possible to get five to seven solid critiques that were more than merely, “I like this, write more,” or, “This sucks, I hate your work.” Much of my early progress as a science fiction writer can be traced to when the above method worked in the classroom. It focuses on the positive first before going after the negative.

    However, if you have a classroom filled with those present only for an easy A, then you are going to get crap back from the critique process. Declining student quality is one of the reasons my friend would eventually retire, earlier than planned I might add.

    • Murph, thanks for commenting. Interesting and novel formula you cite here about critique process in the educational setting, which I have no experience of. Makes sense, and keeps people to the important points. In any group, a significant weakness in the work will be identified, even if each critiquer only gets to ID one weakness–there’ll be overlap.

      The broader point about declining student quality—ugh. Don’t get me started (fortunately that’s another discussion!) 😉

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